When I first saw Anya Sapozhnikova she stood atop stilts that lifted her body above a massive crowd. Her skin tight costume showed off a gymnasts body, tight and toned. Her physique drew admiring gazes from men and women who crammed into the Brooklyn loft that night for a party thrown by rabble-rousing activist turned event promoter Will Etundi, a name known throughout the underground events scene, though the New York twenty-somethings who dabble in alt-parties are more likely to recognize his brand, The Danger.
Circa fall 2006, Anya could be counted on to perform at nearly every The Danger party, but I’d never seen her before “The Carnival of Illusion,” held October 26, 2008 at Third Ward. I paid my $10 at the door, cracked open an oversized can of Tecate purchased beforehand at a Bushwick bodega, and saw Anya rising up on the far side of the massive space, looking like an Amazonian goddess, a role she once played for Dos Equis on an international publicity tour.
I’d finished a second oversized Tecate before I drummed up the courage to talk to her. I weaved my way through several hundred gyrating hipsters, leaned up against a makeshift plywood bar, and hesitated. How does one strike up a conversation with a beautiful woman when your head only rises to the level of her shins? Luckily she contorted her legs such that we could talk for a couple minutes. Too quickly for my taste, however, she got called away by an event promised on the party invitation: “The brash brass of the Hungry March Band will storm the main floor with all the heat and lust that funk and bass drums inevitably inspire,” it said. “Along for the ride will be the Society of the Spectacle: a massive puppet and lewd stilt feat of beauty and integrity.”
A feat of beauty and integrity is a pretty succinct description of Anya, whose friendship I’ve since enjoyed. She is a magnetic personality, her days and nights spent furiously pursuing one project after another, all of them trying to add something special to the city where she resides. The latest and best to date is a Lady Circus production called “Cirque Du Quoi?!?“ I saw it Friday night just before its last known performance, though I expect that it’ll re-emerge on a bigger stage before long. Held in The House of Yes, a singular group house slash professional quality performance space, the Lady Circus and FUCT comedy troupe combined elements of Vaudeville, acrobatics, ballet, cabaret, and flourishes I’ve seen nowhere else to impressive effect. “See what happens when a circus troupe of lovely ladies committed to a life of glamour and spectacle meets a comedy troupe dedicated to constant humiliation in the name of fun,” an advertisement noted. “Expect the unexpected as we totally destroy all that is sacred about the circus.”
I attended with my friend Deepa, a New York City lawyer who represents low-income clients in disputes with their landlords. Due to traffic on the Williamsburg Bridge, we arrived just as the show began. This forced us to stand behind the last row of seats for the duration, a discomfort mitigated by the fact that our $20 admission tickets included all we could drink Colt 45 malt liquor: “It works every time.” But even absent the beer buzz (or the equivalent from the carbon friendly margaritas on offer, blended by a furiously peddling bartender atop a converted exercise bike), a couple hours on our feet would’ve been well worth it. I’ll refrain from describing particular parts of the R rated and decidedly successful show, as I think that it is best seen going in fresh and enjoying the elements of surprise. (Should it re-emerge, as I suspect, would be attendees should know to expect nudity, profanity, and vulgar comedy, though the show is somehow goodhearted if not wholesome in spirit.)
What interests me more is Anya’s development as an entertainer and a force on the underground arts scene. These days, she’s on stilts less often, and tends to perform dangling from a piece of silk (or this NSFW chain). The New York Times ably describes the effect (see the accompanying video to get a sense of the Brooklyn scene parties I’m describing):
A slender young woman hung 30 feet in the air, coiling her body around two pieces of black silk that were attached to the rafters. A crowd watching below screamed as she unraveled herself and started falling toward them and then gasped with relief as she came to a stop just above their heads.
The woman, Anya Sapozhnikova, was performing her aerial circus act, but this was not Cirque du Soleil, and there was no big top. Instead, it was a warehouse party in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
While the notion of circus performers is largely associated with major productions like Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus and the Coney Island sideshows, a new generation of performers is taking the circus arts to unexpected places. Fire eaters, stilt walkers, aerialists and sword swallowers are among those showing off their skills at parties, concerts, clubs and in the streets and in parks.
“It’s more exciting when you don’t expect to see circus arts; it makes it dangerous” said Claire de Luxe, a stilt walker, fire dancer and member of Lady Circus, the troupe that performed on a recent Saturday night at the Bushwick warehouse.
Audience members, who paid $15 to see the circus acts, were also treated to live bands and disc jockeys. “I’m having a good time, drinking a beer, listening to some music, and out of nowhere this girl is falling a few feet from death,” said Enrique Ruiz, 30, a plumber from Brooklyn. “It was amazing.”
The Times story gives this account of Anya’s start in performance: “Ms. Sapozhnikova was a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology three years ago when, coming home from a party one night, she was handed a business card for a company of stilt walkers. Curious, she called the number and was soon taking lessons in her apartment. She started taking her own stilts to parties and was soon hired to perform at a Lower East Side club. She decided about two years ago to organize her own group and started recruiting members through the Internet.”
This description is accurate as far as it goes, but like all brief accounts of people who’ve made successes of themselves, it elides all the toil, risk and daring it takes to make it. Some weeks after I met Anya at that Brooklyn loft party, I visited her at the apartment where she lived at the time, a basement in Bed Stuy, one of the more dangerous neighborhoods in Brooklyn, which she and a roommate transformed from utter squalor into an exceptionally enjoyable space. There were racks of salvaged fabric, sewing machines, quirky furniture plucked from garbage bins and curb sides, a cupboard full of mugs and glasses, no two the same, and a thick pipe running the length of the ceiling.
The night I visited, Anya arrived after a stilt gig in Manhattan, which is to say that she worked for several hours dancing on stilts, took them off and packed them into a duffel bag, climbed atop a bicycle, hoisted her heavy cargo over a shoulder, and rode several miles to her apartment. I’d brought some beer along. She had a half bottle of Vodka on hand, no mixers. Rather than crash on the couch with a drink, however, she spent an hour working on a costume with her friend, Kay Burke, and then walked over beneath the ceiling pipe, threw a piece of fabric over it, and hoisted herself up with her arms.
“I think I’m going to learn aerial,” she said.
She proceeded to explain that though it would require a ton of practice hours—particularly for someone cobbling together a living as a freelance performer, and already exhausted at the end of every day—she had “some ideas” about good things that could result. In hindsight, I’m struck by how much she sounded like an investor in a startup that evening, which is, of course, exactly what she was. By the time she finished her first drink she’d collapsed on the couch against my shoulder, exhausted after being up for 18 hours. It is the only occasion I’ve seen Anya in less than a state of maximum energy.
In subsequent months and years, Anya has systematically achieved everything she’s set out to do. Even as she transformed herself from a beginning aerial performer to a mediocre one to a polished, elegant acrobat — the kind of stage personality that everyone in the audience can’t help either being awed by or falling in love with or envying — she set out to secure that most precious commodity for New York City performers, sufficient space to thrown one’s own parties and host one’s own performances. Anyone who has so much as found a New York City apartment is awed that at 20 years old Anya managed to swing a 5 figure real estate deal to rent perhaps 4,000 square feet of squalor — cat droppings everywhere, among other things — and organize enough friends and rented tow-away dumpsters to transform it into a destination party spot.
And it burned down, taking most of her possessions. I’d moved to DC when I got that e-mail. My $10 an hour intern job didn’t allow me to contribute any more than a pittance to the resurrect-The-House-of-Yes fund. What a pleasure to return after a year and change, walk into the new House of Yes, survey a space better than the last incarnation, and be dazzled by an exceptional performance wherein Anya’s skills were better than I’ve ever seen them, and something for anyone to behold.
Should any promoter, agent, reviewer, or giver of genius grants stumble across this post, be advised that whatever Anya Sapozhnikova does next, you’d do well to pay attention. Her work ethic, generous spirit, charisma and aesthetic sense are an inspiration to all of us who’ve had the pleasure of following her rise over the last several years. And should I become aware of future performances, I’ll look forward to posting the details so that I can better share them with you all.